An Interview with Louis Alexander

Interviewed by Martin Eayrs for the Buenos Aires Herald, 1998

Louis (L.G.) Alexander has recently been in Argentina on a lecture trip and the Herald spoke to him at his hotel.

Louis Alexander interviewed by Martin Eayrs for the Buenos Aires Herald, 1998. Photo Pilar Bustelo.

Louis Alexander recognises that he has been somewhat out of the public eye since he wrote his last book in 1979, but he’s now back on the road involved in what he calls “profile raising”, (nine countries so far this year). He fears that many people may have been wondering what happened to him; whether he has died, retired or just disappeared at the height of his career – the truth is that he’s been working on a new book, the ‘Longman English Grammar’, originally scheduled to take two years but in fact requiring seven, and he has only recently been “let out”.

He sees his new book as plugging a necessary gap, as there has been no new EFL (English as a Foreign language) grammar since 1960. It is aimed at anyone, teacher or student, native-speaker or otherwise, who needs an EFL reference grammar; our language has so far, he says, been abominably served in this respect. Having finally finished this he now sees his main priority as producing accompanying exercises for the grammar which will be “different to anything on the market”, and which will be based on inductive learning techniques that will require the reader to work out the rules for himself rather than being spoon fed with them. These new exercises will be “self-standing”, and thus not necessarily linked to the grammar, but will cross-reference back to it for the “whole story”.

He’s visited Rosario, Cordoba and Buenos Aires on his lecture tour this time round, and observes that the general level of ELT (English Language Teaching) remains as high as on his last visit here in 1972, and that the enormous enthusiasm for learning English continues unabated. A lot of very young people come to his lectures – mainly students who are going to be teachers – and it is from these, he says, that we can tell that the level and enthusiasm are still high. (He admits to a certain satisfaction at finding that many of these have learned from his books).

Outside his professional interests here, however, he finds that Argentina is suffering a “general lack of self confidence”, a “pervasive gloom”, which he did not notice on his previous visit, and this disturbs him.

Asked about his first textbooks (‘First Things First’, ‘Practice and Progress’, ‘Developing Skills’, etc.) and their continuing usefulness today, he stresses that the principal reason for changing textbooks is boredom, more from the point of view of the teacher than the student, but considers that old courses, if they were good in the first place, don’t “die” as much as “fade away”, and is pleased to point out that his first book, ‘Sixty Steps to Precis’ (1962), is still in print. In fact he was particularly gratified when told by a teacher in Rosario that she still hadn’t found a better system for teaching composition than that used in his earliest books, and for that reason she still used them.

He feels that textbooks in general carry the stamp of the individual who produces them, and that this personal quality cannot be replaced by “mere analysis” in books produced by committees. Course books are today becoming glossier, and this implies enormous investment on the parts of the author (seven years for his latest book) and the publisher, who may put “all their shirts” on a flagship course. For this reason, as well as the lack of research facilities and resources in general, local materials cannot usually compete with imported publications, having as they do that “homemade look”.

The EFL market has been dominated recently by British-produced materials, and he feels that this is because North America has been over-involved in the enormous problems caused by immigrant populations within its own boundaries. This he feels may well be changing and North American publishers are now beginning to look beyond their own shores. He does note however that in the past British publishers have been more prepared to make concessions as a means of establishing a foothold than their North American counterparts; (“in 1956 we were going into Egypt when everyone else was coming out”).

No, he does not consider that the market for EFL material is saturated. Perhaps this may be true in the case of Primary and Secondary course books, but he feels there are still “a dozen gaps” waiting to be filled, such as for example the Grammar he has just finished, or perhaps an updated approach to the teaching of composition to satisfy the teacher in Rosario.

Asked whether structured readers like those he has written offer an advantage over ungraded, “authentic” material, he points out that learners quickly become discouraged unless they can read with ease and confidence, and that his readers have been novels, which do not lend themselves so readily to reading for gist (general meaning). In any case, he considers that “authentic” materials culled from the fields of, say, advertising, immediately become unauthentic when incorporated into an EFL package, and that, unfortunately, many teachers insist on analysing every nuance of such texts, thus often invalidating an exercise which in essence consists of getting the general idea only.

He regrets the high cost of English Language teaching materials in this country, and as a teacher sympathises with students who resort to photocopying books or parts of books they simply cannot afford to buy. He is, however, “chagrined” as an author, deeply involved as he is in the right to copyright, and he takes the view that if we go on eroding copyright we erode creativity. People may be forced out of business, he continues, if what they create is copied, and he suggests that even token payment may be better than none, as long as the principle of copyright is observed. (He does however concede that he would prefer his books to be photocopied than another author’s).

He has nothing but contempt for those “teachers” who reject course books in favour of something chosen at random on the way into work. He considers that what these people are actually doing is to create a “totally unedited, unfiltered textbook, without the benefit of any thinking, planning, organisation”. This only occurs in his opinion with a certain class of native-speaker teacher who is “too clever by half”. He makes this point with warmth and evident conviction.

And his spirit continues to rise as he talks about teaching methodology (or methodologies). He himself approves of no teacher or method which preaches one methodology at the expense of others, disapproving strongly of what he refers to as “linguistic evangelism”. He values an approach which is “open-minded and catholic in its view, and which recognises the enormous variety of methods”. His voice rises in time with his temper as he remonstrates: “many of these linguistic evangelists have never exposed themselves to the fiery furnace of the classroom to see whether their marvellous ideas will stand up for five minutes”.  A nerve has clearly been touched here.

One quickly gets the impression that he is a pragmatist – “no ideal method … we must look at circumstances and avoid blanket views … learning a language is very hard … different people have different ceilings, just as some people drive (cars) better than others”.

He applies the same practical point of view to the commercial aspects of his work – “Competition between publishers must be good”. A firm believer in market forces and the survival of the fittest, he sees it as not the fault of the publishers if the consumer is faced with a bewildering plethora of ELT material. It is up to the consumer to filter the material. In this respect he suggests the need for some independent consumer association, like the British Which magazine, which could provide an objective description and evaluation to the consumer; he finds that some very good material unfortunately has a very short “shelf life”.

He favours an international approach to English Language Teaching, considering that the cultural aspects are more suitable to specialised, advanced courses. The language that enables a Japanese tourist to converse with a shopkeeper in Buenos Aires should, he says, be divorced from any one culture, and he feels that in Argentina general English language teaching should on the one hand enable Argentines to communicate with visitors (regardless of where they are from), and on the other enable Argentines who may travel abroad to do the same. What he is very anxious to avoid is any charge of “linguistic imperialism” – we should at all times respect local methods and local learning traditions.

He was, finally, very patient with this interviewer, and he and his wife Julie were charming and most cooperative throughout a long interview in what has been a tight schedule.

His only complaint – he does wish that people here could try to be “a little more cheerful”.


The name of L.G. Alexander will be familiar to anyone who has been in any way connected with the teaching or learning of English during the last twenty-five years. Many readers of the Herald must have come into contact with one of his course books , which include ‘New Concept English’ (First ‘Things First’ , ‘Practice and Progress’, etc), ‘Look Listen and Learn’ , ‘Target’ , ‘Mainline’ , ‘Follow Me’, and most recently ‘Plain English’. His graded readers still continue to delight and his language practice books are used by literally millions of people all over the world.

Yet there is more to the man than just writing text books for classroom use. His expertise is based on lengthy teaching experience in Greece and Germany, after which he was included in the Council of Europe’s Modern Language Teaching Committee and he was in fact one of the authors of The Threshold Level and Waystage, publications which lay down guidelines for the coherent and consistent teaching of modern languages in Europe today and also provide the rationale for many modern “communicative” language courses. Currently he is adviser to the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate for the Cambridge Certificate in English for International Communication.


An interview with Randolph Quirk

23 July 1991, by Martin Eayrs for the Buenos Aires Herald

Professor Sir Randolph Quirk was in Buenos Aires last week as part of the increasing activity surrounding the British Council’s reinitiation of activities in Argentina. The Herald  spoke to him at his hotel.

ME       Perhaps I can start by combining two questions. Have you been to Argentina before, and what is the purpose of your present visit?

RQ      This is my first visit to Argentina and I’m extremely happy to be here. I am a member of the board of the British Council and I’ve been very keen to reopen in Argentina. We opened only in May of this year so I’m in on the ground floor, as it were. Another member of the board, the novelist Baroness James  (better known perhaps as P. D. James) was here some weeks ago and I wanted to see the British Council activity for myself. I knew Harold Fish [Buenos Aires representative of the British Council – ME] in Germany and this morning I went over and had a look at the building. I’m well pleased with what the Council is doing here and I’m very impressed by the warmth that Argentina is showing to the British Council.

ME       There are a great many ‘varieties’ of English in use in the world today, some of them differing considerably from the Standard English used in Britain and the United States. In some cases what passes for ‘English’ in some parts of the world is practically unintelligible to speakers of ‘English’ in others. Do you think this divergence might eventually lead to a splintering away, to the formation of separate languages?

RQ      I think we are talking about two different kinds of language variation here. There is the variation between British, American, Australian and South African English, and these are really like dialectal variations within one language  From that point of view the variation between one region or one nation’s English and another’s is no different from the relation between Iberian Spanish and other forms of Spanish in Mexico, Argentina, Chile, etc. Just as an Englishman can make a fair guess at identifying an Australian, a Scotsman, a Welshman or an American, some of us are a bit cleverer and can recognise not only an American but also a ‘New Englander’ or a ‘Southerner’. This is certainly true for Spanish too – in Spain a Spaniard can identify a Mexican or an Argentinian, for example, – those two stand out. But in addition to that kind of variation there is a fundamentally different kind of variation – exemplified by so called Indian English or Nigerian English, Bangla Desh English, etc. Although the use of English in India or Nigeria is different to the use of English in the Soviet Union or Germany it varies from native English for the same reason, because of the interference of whatever the mother language is. I regard these varieties as inherently unstable. You and I can usually tell if a foreigner speaking to us is a Swede, a Spaniard, etc. They’ve got not merely a foreign accent but a foreign accent we associate with a particular linguistic community. They’re inherently unstable because the better learned the language is, the more that accent disappears. So by a kind of irony the person who speaks Indian English most recognisably is the person who by common sense standards speaks it worst. And they’re inherently unstable from another more fundamental point of view. Most of the native varieties of English have not been institutionalised – only two have been, British and American English – but it would be perfectly possible to institutionalise Australian English and New Zealand English.

ME       Why has this not happened?

RQ      Why hasn’t Argentinian Spanish been institutionalised? When some people talk of ‘argentino’ in the same way as some people say ‘he’s speaking Australian’ this is not exactly a joke. Sometimes it’s a political assertion. In the media the differences between Iberian and Argentinian Spanish melt away except for some pronunciation features. Some lexical items have to be used because they describe cultural features that obtain here and not in the Iberian Peninsula. It’s interesting that although Argentina and Mexico have been established a very long time the folk wisdom – whether in government, in power in the church or the media or just the folk downstairs – there is, even if they don’t like to give it verbal expression, some kind of pride in speaking a world language. They don’t want to hive off. We are not stargazers and anything can happen. We know that a single language has in the past split up into different languages, but in the past the starting point was different. In the case of Romance languages developed from Latin, the countries of France, Romania, Portugal and Spain were not settled after the withdrawal of the Roman legions by a solid mass of standard Latin-speaking peoples. There were little bits and pieces of Latin impinging on the Celtic of France, etc. Nowadays we have a worldwide communications system which keeps together those languages which are together already and we can’t afford not to. My prediction is that English will not split off into separate languages. It shows no signs of doing so, and the last 100 years has seen a confluence rather than a centrifugal development in these languages. I’m far more interested in the fact that Spanish hasn’t split – it has had the diaspora far longer than English.

ME       Do you think this could be because Spanish has a Royal Academy whereas English doesn’t?

RQ      You could say Spanish has stuck together over 450 years of diaspora   because it has the Real Academia and English will split up because after 350 years of diaspora  there is no Academy. But Academies do not hold languages together. Nobody has ever measured the influence of Academies, but compared with the centripetal influence of government, the church and the media, neither the institutionalisational influence nor the stabilising influence of a Royal Academy is worth a fig in my view. It seems to me that the answer to your previous question is “Well, look at Spanish – if Spanish can stick together then so can English”. And because of the far more numerous roles that English has had imposed upon it the demands of keeping world-wide standards of English are much stronger that in the case of Spanish.

ME       You made a binary cut between native English and non-native English; that of India and Nigeria on the one hand and Germany and the Soviet Union on the other.

RQ      Yes. People in the British Council are used to making a distinction between ESL (English as a Second Language) and EFL (English as a Foreign Language). This is a distinction I have recently repudiated in my own work because I can no longer make the distinction with confidence. It seems to me that there’s an ethno-political bias in this very concept. It’s always been clear to me that every single ESL country that you can name is ex-Commonwealth. And, if there’s any EFL country on earth that is prototypical, then it’s Israel. There’s a lot of internal use of English but there’s no way I can tell an Israeli by his accent because each Israeli speaks English with the influence of his or her own background and Israeli Hebrew has not yet become so universal in Israel that it will become the native language and will start making an impact on others. But English is more important in Germany or Holland than in these other countries. If I were to stick my neck out I might say that I see English as playing a declining role in the ex-imperial countries. In India the Hindi belt is now such that they can afford to snap their fingers at the Tamil speaking minority who use English. It is true that Rajiv Gandhi was speaking English in a Tamil area on the day he was assassinated, but English plays a relatively minor role in India today and I believe it will eventually decline, as it will in Nigeria where it’s much more widespread than in India. The varieties of English that are worth taking a long and serious look at are the English of America and Britain, in that order.

ME       Indira Gandhi once complained that she could not understand the English spoken by certain members of her own Parliament. Would you say they were ‘speaking the same language’ or that the communication breakdown indicates that there were two ‘Englishes’ operating in this instance, one based on “Standard English” and one local variety?

RQ      I would say that the story of Indira and her MP was simply that she was well aware that her English was considerably better. We could have said precisely the same thing about Douglas Hurd going to an EC meeting in Brussels and complaining about one of the British Civil Servants not speaking French well enough. For Indira and her son, if English was a foreign language at all, it was a foreign language very well acquired. That’s a generation that’s going.

ME       In another sense, it has been suggested that there are in fact two kinds of ‘standard English’ – one ‘complete version’ spoken by educated native speakers who use it as their first language, and a second, stripped-down and hence impoverished version, spoken by highly fluent speakers of English as a second language, and used as a world lingua franca in commerce, aviation, diplomacy, etc.   Do you consider this a fair description, and if so, would you expect the two ‘versions’ to diverge, coalesce or maintain the same relation between them as at present?

RQ      The short answer to this is no. But yes, in so much as there are several stripped-down versions. There is the Standard English of course, and the remarkable thing is that if you take a book by Patrick White or Antonia Byatt, you can read many pages before you decide that this must be a British, Australian or American writer. This Standard English is worldwide and has a continuity which most of us find reassuring. About thirteen years ago I floated the idea of a system of English called ‘Nuclear English’ in which we would have one stripped down version of English which was well designed and had a core vocab of about 2000 words in which you could say anything you wanted to say provided you didn’t want to be too poetic or too subtle. In this Nuclear English you could communicate everything using a grammar system which avoided all the modal auxiliaries which give our students so much difficulty – for example replacing ‘you may be right’ with ‘it is possible you are right’. It would give up the tag questions, using instead an ‘isn’t that so’ construction as in so many other languages. It would not deviate from standard English but by choosing with great care you could have a language that was much easier to learn, that was recognisable and usable all over the world and which would cost the poorer countries in this world which are pouring so much money into English language acquisition a great deal less in terms of national resources. I was also worried about the danger of the institutionalisation of Indian English and Nigerian English and felt that if that came about there would be a spiralling downwards because, without that native base, what is accepted in 1974 as ‘good English’ is passed on to the next generation only superficially – we can never teach all that we know ourselves. This was just a vague idea, but a couple of years after that with the aid of Robert Maxwell we floated something called ‘Seaspeak’. We had a reasonably effective system for Air navigation and the people who had the greatest difficulty learning this were the natives because they have to constrain themselves downwards rather than acquire new habits as the foreign learner does. The shipping companies were losing enormous amounts of money through accidents and additionally the level of education of the people involved in running ships is generally lower than in aviation. So a different cut down version was a definite necessity which Seaspeak was designed to fulfil.

ME       How has English language teaching in the United Kingdom been affected by the development of an increasingly multiracial society? One would imagine that there might be a growing call for familiarity with EFL/ESL techniques within the British educational system.

RQ      I wouldn’t want to give this too much emphasis. It is a very small sector of the English school population, but it may be eight to ten per cent or higher in some inner cities. Although local authorities have differed in the enthusiasm and professionalism with which they have taken this up, most London or Bradford schools, to give two examples, do have especially trained teachers who are aware that some of their children come from non-English speaking backgrounds . It particularly affects people from Moslem homes where the mothers have very little opportunity to socialise and therefore the language that they hand on to their children is Urdu or something similar. But I still hope that this is a passing phase and that increasingly the mothers will become the girls who went to schools here. It has been worrying and it continues to be so, and it’s an issue that’s become politicised in certain areas where manipulation of ‘consciousness raising’ is prevalent in immigrant communities.

ME       You have in the past used the term ‘liberation linguistics’, presumably by analogy to ‘liberation theology’. Do you consider that language policies are inevitably subject to political and ideological considerations? And did you coin the phrase?

RQ      Yes, in fact I did coin the phrase. Just as the liberation theologians wanted to dance a naughty tango with the Church of Rome and have the best of both worlds by playing a double game, I know that some of the people I have dubbed ‘liberation linguists’ have, to quote Pope, only a very little learning and that they have used it very dangerously. Language policies are inevitably subject to political and ideological considerations. It is unfortunate that the latter aspects of this have become (in my view) overly dominant, to the detriment of education. The way in which my wife and I have tried to put it in our book “English in Use” is that it is the job of education to make people into fit citizens and that means the wider the horizon the better the citizenship. Anything which raises boundaries between party and party or language community and language community is something that education is fundamentally concerned with destroying.

ME       In a country like Argentina, where a great many people are actively involved in the teaching and learning of English as a Foreign language, do you consider that exposure to a single ‘standard’ (perhaps Standard British or Standard American) or to different ‘varieties’ (e.g. UK regional, would be the best strategy?

 RQ     In Argentina it is interesting how relatively little overt influence American English seems to be having, although some of the personnel in hotels are perhaps an exception. Despite being a long way from the UK or any UK based standard, the resistance to American English seems to still be quite strong. This afternoon I was at a seminar of 22 people where only one person spoke as if she had studied in the United States. My answer to this is that you can only really teach the English you know and fortunately the differences between British and American English, the two main standards, are, accent aside, sufficiently small that you don’t have to worry about it too much. In Argentina there is obviously a British standard and an American standard.

ME       There is currently a debate about the relative merits of professionally trained local EFL teachers and ‘imported’ native speaker teachers. Do you have any strong feelings with regard to one being more suitable than the other in different teaching situations?

RQ      I was talking about this at this afternoon’s seminar. I was really rather horrified to find that (in Argentina), unlike in Santiago and Valparaiso, there is very little native-English speaker input at university or teacher training level. The British system (although we are awful at learning languages) and the German Lektor system give this possibility. However if I had to choose between the two I would prefer the non-native teacher. The teacher with the same language background as the pupils doesn’t speak English as well but he has a much better grasp of pupil’s problems than the native-English teacher does and therefore can grade the learning. Native-speaker teachers have to be much more disciplined and much better trained than the non-native speaker in order to teach English as a foreign language . Ideally a group of half a dozen Argentinian non-native teachers ought to have a native Lektor that can take conversation classes, and so on.


Professor Sir Randolph Quirk  was born in 1920 in the Isle of Man. He has been a lecturer in English at University College, London,  Reader  and Professor  of English Language at Durham University, Quain Professor of English Language and Literature at UCL, Vice-Chancellor of the University of London and President of the British Academy. In 1959 he founded the Survey of English Usage, continuing as its Director until 1981. His publications include ‘An Old English Grammar’ (1955), ‘The Use of English’ (1962/68), ‘A Grammar of Contemporary English’ (1972), ‘The Linguist and the English Language’ (1974), ‘A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language’ (1985), ‘Words at Work: Lectures on Textual Structure’ (1986), ‘English in Use’ (1990) and  ‘A Student’s Grammar of the English Language’ (1990). He maintains an active interest in  Old English, Old Icelandic texts, the language of Dickens and Shakespeare, the teaching of English, English as an International Language and research and publications on English grammar. He is married  to Gabriele Stein, Professor of Linguistics at the University of Heidelburg.

The day I bumped into Pappo

If we are going to be accurate, this piece should more properly be called the day Pappo bumped into me, but it doesn’t quite have the ring.

Norberto Aníbal Napolitano, aka Pappo, 1950 – 2005. Photo — –

Norberto Aníbal Napolitano, aka Pappo, 1950 – 2005. Photo — –

Argentina has long had a love of and heavy involvement with the Blues, and in his time Buenos Aires born and bred Pappo played an integral part on that scene. He played with such seminal bands as Los Abuelos de la Nada, Los Gatos, Aerobus and Riff, and spent five years or so in the late 1970s playing and recording in the UK alongside greats such as Fleetwood Mac’s legendary Peter Green and Lemmy of Motorhead fame. His last, rolling band was Pappo’s Blues which produced seven exciting albums. More info here.

So to the bump. One evening I was proceeding in a northwards direction up the Avenida Corrientes in downtown Buenos Aites, my eyes drawn to the east as I passed one of the many theatres in that part of town where the star turn was , yes, you’ve guessed it already, Pappo. Crowds were forming outside the door, the foyer was filling with blues fans and I was toying, not very seriously, with the idea of cancelling my evening class and joining them.

When bang, crash, wallop I am thrown to the floor and pinned to the ground by a couple of hundred pounds of what turns out to be Pappo, himself not so much proceeding as sprinting frantically south, late for his gig and losing his balance, huffing and puffing like the overweight, unfit blues rocker he was. Like I was, then and now. His hard, black battered guitar case was digging into my neck, and my eyes focussed surreally on a torn and tattered sticker that read ‘Head Music’. It was certainly doing my head in.

Gentleman Pappo extricated himself from the melange of English and Argentine limbs with a surprising nimbleness, looked me northeast to southwest and, ascertaining that no permanent damage had been caused, proffered a friendly and sincere sorry, che accompanied by a muttered reminder to himself to be more careful. Yours truly, not often at a loss for something to say, at such short notice could only come up with the fatuous vos sos Pappo, which was neither news to him nor particularly useful in the circumstance.

A brief conversation of sorts did develop – in English, after he’d worked out that was where I was from. He had a love of England, and this was in any case pre-1982. He invited me to see the show stage side but I had classes to teach. And we were both pushed for time. All too soon, the two ships that had collided in the night sailed on in their respective directions: he to do blues battle on a Corrientes stage and I, somewhat more prosaically, to teach a private class to an industrialist in Palermo.

And that is how Pappo and I bumped into one another.  He died in a motorbike accident in February 2005 but for a certain generation his legend lives on. If you want a reminder of (or introduction to) the genius that was Pappo visit the Youtube link below.


What happened to Ramon of ‘Ramon Writes’?


For many years the Buenos Aires Herald ran an irregular column written by Basil Thomson (aka B.T.) called Ramon Writes. Ramon (always without accent) had a less than perfect control of English but was a master of Spanglish. Ramon’s last communication with BT was on July 13 1977. The last readers heard of him he was working aboard a liner, then …

Recently, in a periodic cleanup, the following letter turned at the Herald offices. It seems to have arrived in about 1995 and to have been swept up with some other papers. It does at least explain Ramon’s initial long silence, if not the second one ..

Southampton Docks,

Dear B.T.

How much it makes that I don’t make reach you my notices. The truth it is that I have had the disgrace to be encarcelated during the latest eighteen years. The blame was not mine, but intend to explain was to the divine button. There is not the worse deaf that he who doesn’t want to hear.

You will remind yourself I was working of waiter aboard of a transatlantic and it touched me a companion of the bed of alternating current, Rosanna, also a waiter of table but of the side opposite, and there armed itself a bundle of the great seven.

Of not to be able to go down of the bark in Genoa I had to support that one and what bronc it gave me until that we found ourselves in London and he asked me the chief of machines to go of shopping with him like interpreter. It results that the chief of machines knew not a potato of the English and as I dominate it (after all the years I have of perfecting it) desired that I accompanied him in order that he buys gifts for his woman and creatures.

So that we find ourselves with the chief of machines making buys in the England’s capital. I am diverting myself in great, saluting all the people and practising the English, and everything it is going us well but is always raining and with the cold it makes I become aphonic and can’t more with the interpretation, but the chief of machines he says not to preoccupy myself as in every case I can anote on a sheet or if not point it with the finger.

I am of agree, and there is where begins all the problem. On small sheets I anote the words ‘How much costs this one?’, ‘I carry myself three’, ‘Put me it all in this bag’, etc., thinking so I can demonstrate them to the employed of the stores. And very well walks the system – I deliver the bag and the message and the employed she very well understands me.

But the latest day pass me the following. The chief of machines he charges me of finding a pistol for his older son that lets free sparks and makes the great noise, during he occupies him by passing for the consulate and other diligences of the latest moment. And when I arrive to buy the pistol I think why not buy me one also. I think on menacing Rosanna, the pistol it is very realistic, so that Rosanna leaves to molest me more. So that I buy me another pistol more and I guard me it in the pocket of the jacket where I guard the money and the documents.

But before to return to the bark I have to pass for the house of change for to change me the pounds that stay me. You will remind you that I am aphonic so the bag of shopping I put it on the shelf and I take out the sheet where are anoted the words ‘Please change me these pounds to dollars’ but disgracefully I mistake myself and I deliver to the employes of the house of change the note where says ‘Put me it all in this bag’.

During so much I am trying to take out the wallet where I guard the document of the pocket, but it doesn’t want to go out because of the pistol I bought to shock Rosanna so I am obliged to myself to take out the pistol and then there arms itself a bundle bigger that a house and I find myself on the back and then come the agents of the police and they carry me to the station of the police.

Well, I intend to explain that happened, that I am waiter of table on transatlantic, of Rosanna, of the chief of machine’s creatures, etc., but there isn’t case, and they carry me to the tribunal which calls itself Old Bailey, and the judge he dictates me the sentence that I must pass eighteen years at her majesty’s delight. Of those years better I don’t speak. Like those years my friend I don’t want to pass another.

So it resulted, and recently now I make the preparations to voyage of return to Buenos Aires. You can calculate me to be of return soon, and if for there there is an entry in your diary for a colaborator or traducer you can count with me to be disposable. (It goes without to say that now my domination of the English is complete). And if there doesn’t present itself an entry for me of immediate in your diary, for there you are vinculated with persons or amisties of confidence of whom you can ask an attention.

In all case, I compromise myself to put me in contact or there or from the exterior for a letter as this one. There faults little for that we take a cup with you, and until then receive salutes from your friend,



Task Force

Written during BRAZTESOL Conference, Goâiña, Brazil, 1996

Comment, order, modify,
Classify and justify,
Infer, predict, identify …
All day long the teacher’s cry . . .

Off we go then, up the stairs.
Move the chairs and get in pairs,
Stand up, sit down,
Hands on heads, now turn around,
Head and shoulders, arms and knees,
Delete, complete, continue please,
What to do with kids like these …?

Alter, argue, group discuss,
Left your homework on the bus?
Here’s the question, where’s the answer,
Silent reading, info transfer,
First, last, compare, contrast,
Future, perfect, present, past,
Correct, deduce, select, produce,
Read the bit on language use

Find, fill.. replace, remove,
Make an effort, must improve,
True, false, right, wrong, no and yes,
Guess, success, don’t make a mess
Describe, expand, insert, corrupt,
Explain again, don’t interrupt,
Read the fable, make a label,
Leave your homework on the table,
Write a story, if you’re able

Transform, translate,
Commentate and demonstrate,
Wait, narrate and don’t be late,
Recall, remove, rank, match, tell,
Wait for the bell, Oh, very well …

EFL exams are not what they used to be …

When I started out as an EFL teacher back in the 1960s things were very different from now. The University of Cambridge (UCLES as it then was) was running a three-tier system of English language exams for overseas students: the ‘Lower Certificate in English’, introduced in 1939 (and renamed ‘First Certificate’ in 1976); the ‘Certificate of Proficiency in English (CPE) introduced in 1913 (and often referred to at the time as ‘the Higher’); and a third, absurdly high level exam way above CPE called the ‘Diploma of English Studies’ (DES), introduced I think in 1945. During my early teaching years I prepared candidates for all three of these and was a listening and oral examiner for the Lower and CPE. The format was different, more different than you could probably imagine, but that’s not my topic for today.

In those pre-CEFR days it was hard to assess the level of an exam, but the CPE then was to my mind much ‘harder’ than it is today. Certainly none the exams in the forms they then existed were what we would want to call communicative. The CPE included translation and both literary criticism and ‘Literature’, and was not unlike English language A-level of the day in some respects. The DES was a very ‘advanced’ exam indeed, one which went way beyond this and then further into contrastive cultural studies, etc. The candidature for DES was always small and in 1996 it was ‘quietly removed’. I have a few friends around still who achieved DES level, including one or two I helped prepare; but much of the ‘preparation’ was in fact carried out by the candidates themselves.

In the 1980s and 1990s the levels stabilised and the ‘main suite’ of exams slowly emerged until we reached the set of exams we know now.

That was then and now is now. A rather damning and anonymous comment (“A review of Local Examinations Syndicate – University of Cambridge”) was made on Wednesday 4th of January 2006 (see here for source).

UCLES administered until 1996 the Diploma of English Studies, an examination in English Literature and background studies at post-Proficiency level. Its discontinuation was due to the low number of entries of candidates; UCLES was busy running the far more popular -and profitable- FCE and CPE exams and could see no (financial) viability in the Diploma. Moreover, the introduction of new exams, such as KET and PET would mean attracting more and more test takers and the accrual of greater commercial gain, so why bother about literature and higher-level exams at all? One could argue that there was nothing wrong with their decision to discontinue it; still, an examining body which respects its audience should, as well as creating new exams, cater for the needs of successful candidates in terms of maintaining recognition even of discontinued qualifications. In short, UCLES should have done two things: It should have continued to make reference, in the Regulations, to the Diploma (as an advanced exam at post-Proficiency level) and, secondly, it should have tried to have it included in NQF (national qualifications framework) at, say, level 5 (the same level as DELTA). This way, Diploma holders would not have been left dissatisfied.

So, Mammon had a voice although it was missed by a few in its passing. Have we seen a dumbing down of these English language exams over the years? Well, probably yes and no, apples and oranges;  I have no dog in this fight.

When CPE (the ‘middle level’ of the Lower-CPE-DES exams) started, students were taking 12 hours of papers, with translations, literature and essays on such topics as ‘The effect of political movements upon nineteenth century literature in England’, ‘English Pre-Raphaelitism’, ‘Elizabethan travel and discovery’ and ‘The development of local self-government’, with no guidance as to how to approach these topics. They required strong cognitive and intellectual skills and a good knowledge of language, literature and culture which is not expected today, and in fact is often actively resisted by exam writers. I’m not sure there’s a place today in EFL for any of that.

Today’s exams are far more ‘authentic’ and student-oriented, and some would say considerably ‘easier’ in terms of the language they test. They are also far less Anglocentric and undoubtedly more accessible to today’s students than the post-WW2 versions would be, and that has to be a good thing.

More Tom Swifties – and beyond

A light-hearted look at some verse forms – including limericks, clerihews and double dactyls. Published in MET Vol. 10 No. 4 (October 2001) [This is a continuation of an article you can find here]

In a previous article in MET Vol.10 No.1 (Jan 2001) we looked at Tom Swifties. Here’s an example to remind you: ‘Give me your gun,’ said Tom, disarmingly. Yes, they are very bad puns but that’s the point – the reaction is supposed to be a groan, not a laugh. In fact there is more than one kind of Swiftie.

The kind we’ve looked at is the adverbial kind (‘They say I overuse adverbs,’ said Tom, swiftly). But there is another kind which uses a verb instead of an adverb. An example might be ‘What a lovely brook,’ Tom babbled, where babbled refers both to what Tom says and the noise of the running water.Here are some more ‘verbal’ Swifties: 

     ‘Don’t you get angry with me,’ Tom growled.
     ‘I think there’s a hole in the road ahead,’ Tom hazarded.
     ‘What? Me? A drinking problem?’ Tom gulped.

There is a rarer third type, using a prepositional phrase: ‘I’m leaving you, Rupert,’ said Rodney in gay abandon. These are rather harder to construct than the other two (and my apologies for the stereotyping here).

Another variant of the Tom Swiftie matches a person’s name with an appropriate adjective. We might for example speak of The hasty Mr Swift, where the adjective hasty picks up on an attribute contained in the name Swift. Some more examples: thinking of ELT authors, we might refer to the brutal Mr Harmer where the word ‘harm’ (embedded in ‘Harmer’) is associated with the idea of brutality or violence; the festive Ms Revell (‘revels’ are parties); or the towering Mr and Mrs Soars (to ‘soar’ is to shoot up high into the air).You get the idea.

But Swifties are only one example of ways in which people play with words. Let’s have a look at some other ways of bending the language to our will, playing this time with what might charitably be called verse but should more accurately be termed doggerel.

The limerick

The limerick is an institution throughout the English-speaking world. In fact, there is actually a Limerick day – celebrated on the twelfth of May. I’ve no idea who decided this, or when, but one year US novelist Erica Jong celebrated the occasion with a tribute to the inventor of the Limerick, Edward Lear:

A bespectacled artist called Lear
First perfected this smile in a sneer.
He was clever and witty
He gave life to this ditty
That original author called Lear.

Edward Lear first published limericks in 1846 and since then the craze has never really died, although the majority in circulation are probably not suitable to tell your grandmother. The rhyme and rhythm are supposed to be always the same (AABBA) and the last line is supposed to produce a humorous climax.

The format is not as restrictive as it might seem. Here’s another, slightly less conventional one.

It’s a favourite project of mine
A new value of p to assign
I would fix it at 3
For it’s simpler, you see
Than 3 point 1  4  1  5  9

Lear’s original Limericks usually started with ‘There once was a man from…’ or ‘There was a young lady from…’ and the final line echoed the first one. This form is rare now, and there is really no limit to the ingenuity of some people who turn their hand to writing limericks.

I was once challenged to write a limerick beginning ‘There was a young girl called Victoria’ (Victoria was the name of the Institution I worked at) and it took me quite a long time to work out a suitable rhyme scheme. If you’re sensitive, skip the rest of this paragraph – but I was quite proud of what I eventually came up with:

There was a young girl called Victoria
Who frequented the world’s crematoria
The key to her dreams
Was the smell, so it seems,
Which induced a protracted euphoria.

Rapidly shifting to a loftier example, a graduate of the University of Birmingham has embarked on the extraordinarily obscure task of putting Shakespeare’s tragic masterpiece King Lear into limerick form (see box). Don’t ask me why, but if you compare this extract with the original text (King Lear, Act I, Sc ii) and try to continue for a verse or so, you will rapidly realise just how impossibly difficult the task is.

This comes from Act I, Sc ii, where Edmund and his father Gloster are reading and discussing a letter, supposedly written by Gloster’s bastard son Edgar, in which it is proposed that the two sons murder their father. To appreciate this tour de force it helps considerably if you know the plot.

Edmund Dear Edmund, times stink, and the proof
is oldies have ackers, but youth
must cope without cash
with nothing to splash
until we’re quite long in the tooth.
Gloster He says that, does he ? Good, bend an ear,
and I’ll comment in words that are clear
as a bell. If you list-
en You might learn.
Edmund Wouldn’t miss
 exposition from you, dad,
Gloster So here
is a case, as we see, where it’s clear
that the pain, if one’s poor, is severe.
And unless one gets rich
like me, life’s a bitch
and the goodies impossibly dear.
Ah ha! Now where are we, this raises
the question of hardship. What fazes
me is waiting for bread
till our daddy is dead
and buried and pushing up daisies.
Edmund Up daisies, up daisies, wha- what ?
He couldn’t, he didn’t, Great Scott,
well that is on the terse
side, the next bit is worse
though. Goodness !
Gloster Go on!  Read the lot. 
Yes read it.
Edmund He thinks you’re too slow
Gloster I’m what ?
Edmund You won’t go.
Gloster Won’t go where ?
Edmund That’s the drift.

So, if dad will not shift
himself from this place here below

and transfer up to heaven above
We should do what is needed to shove
him. As Edgar I sign
for myself on the line
and conclude with all brotherly love.’

Here are a few more limericks for you:

This self-same young girl called Victoria

(whose hobby could not have been gorier)
Was consigned to the flames
By a curate called James
Who then sang an improvised ‘Gloria’
(Helen Grayson)

The limerick is furtive and mean;
You must keep her in close quarantine,
Or she sneaks to the slums
And promply becomes
Disorderly, drunk and obscene.

There was a young lady from Kent
Who said that she knew what it meant
When men asked her to dine,
Gave her cocktails and wine
She knew what it meant but she went.

12, 144 + 20
+ 3(√4)
÷ 7
+ 5 x 11
= 81 + 0
(Nigel Dunn – See below for translation)

The clerihew

This is another verse form that has a strict rhyme scheme but the rhythm is rather more flexible. It was invented in 1890 or thereabouts, perhaps unsurprisingly by a gentleman of the name of Edmund Clerihew Bentley. His first clerihew is said to have been as follows:

Sir Humphry Davy
Was not fond of gravy
He lived in the odium
Of having discovered sodium.

Although very possibly the first of its kind, this is far from the best example of the genre and other writers with time on their hands have since gone on to produce far more skilled examples. Here are a couple more:

Sir Christopher Wren
Said ‘I’m going to dine with some men.’
If anyone calls
Tell them I’m designing St Paul’s.

And another I found in my notes:

Billy the Kid
Never did
For killing those guys

The structure of the clerihew consists of two phrases, each consisting of rhyming couplets and spread over two lines of indeterminate length, giving a total of four lines. The first line is the name of a person and the other three lines make a comment or observation about him (or her, technically, but strangely all the clerihews I have read seem to be about men. There must be a paper in that somewhere …)

The double dactyl

This is a variation on the clerihew, although a little more structured, and is known in the US by the name Higgledy Piggledy. The form is said to have been invented by Anthony Hecht and Paul Pascal (see references below). It consists of two quatrains each of four lines. The second line must be a person’s name and the fourth and eighth lines must rhyme. At least one line must consist of a single word only, almost always multisyllabic. Here’s an example from The Sunday Times Guide to Wordplay and Word Games:

Tweedledum Tweedledee
Alice in Wonderland
First she was tiny and
Then she was small
Argued with animals
Didn’t accept their
Conclusions at all.

And another from Helen Grayson at the University of Leeds

Opera seria
Kiri Te Kanawa
Hits all the highest notes
Never sings flat.
Would Gotterdammerung
Happen tomorrow if
Kiri got fat?

Double dactyls are as not easy to write as limericks or clerihews, especially when the sense of the poem is supposed to relate to the life of the person mentioned in the second line, although the form has found popularity on university campuses where people tend to be more used to long words and convoluted language.

Material consulted

  • Hecht A. & Pascal P., Jiggery-Pokery: A Compendium of Double Dactyls, Athenaeum, New York, 1967.
  • King G., The Sunday Times Guide to Wordplay and Word Games, Mandarin, London, 1993
  • McArthur T., The Oxford Companion to the English Language, OUP, 1992
  • Ousby I., The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English, CUP, 1993

Translation of Nigel Dunn’s limerick:

A dozen, a gross and a score
Plus three times the square root of four
Divided by seven
Plus five times eleven
Provides eighty-one, nothing more



Impractical English

Note: I found this today while clearing out old zip files and it amused me. It’s odd reading stuff you yourself wrote nearly forty years ago. This comes from way back in the 80s, when I was the owner/director of a language school in Buenos Aires. It was originally published in the Buenos Aires Herald.

Some sample pages from El Inglés Práctico

Some sample pages from El Inglés Práctico

At the end of every year I have the unenviable task of cleaning and clearing out the Victoria School book room. This means having to decide what to bin and what stays in, effectively a trade off between the squirreling instinct and the pragmatics of shelf space.

One book which seems to survive the chop every year is a rather tattered volume called El Inglés Práctico. No, not my long awaited autobiography (which could certainly never go out under that title, on account of how I am by all accounts un inglés bastante impráctico), no, this is a course book for learners of English from way back when. Look as I would, I could nowhere find a date of publication but judging by the wardrobe of the characters in the line drawings I would place it somewhere in the late twenties or early thirties.

I should perhaps make it clear that this is a wholly Argentine book, and the characters and situations are predominantly set in Argentina. The first vocabulary items presented in volume one are ‘the father’, ‘the mother’ and ‘the honest family’. In fact, honesty would seem to be the theme of this first unit. Consider some of the sentences in the first lectura y conversación:

The father is kind, the mother is good and the son is gentle. The family is good and honest. Is it good and honest ? Yes, it is. Robert is the child. He is very honest. The grandfather and the grandmother are very old and (yes, you’ve guessed it) they are honest.

I’m not making this up. Honest.

Another thing I liked was the pedagogical device of giving in each unit a short list of frases usuales en clase, basically a list of teacher-talk items useful for classroom management. In the list of these ‘useful phrases’ accompanying the very first unit, along with the expected ‘stand up’, ‘sit down’ and ‘exchange places’, appear enjoinders to ‘pronounce well’, and, presumably lest this not produce the desired results, to ‘pronounce better’. Would that things were so simple.

The second lesson introduces some rather more useful vocabulary, setting honesty aside for a while in order to concentrate on the wardrobe. A brief extract should give you the flavour:

Is this bodice flannel or woolen ? It is neither flannel nor woolen, but cotton. Have you not a pretty fan ? And has he not new braces ? No, I have a simple one and he has old ones.

Most teachers I know would be probably be happy if their students came up with these structures after two years, if at all, let alone two lessons, considering the inverted negative questions, anaphoric references, pronominalisation, etc., involved.

Leafing through to the end of the book I cannot resist sharing with you the visit to the peluquero de caballeros (all captions, instructions, etc., in the book are in Spanish, a trend, incidentally, which is returning now in much new ELT material). Consider the advice the customer (looking rather like Ramon in the illustrations of the famous Buenos Aires Herald publication Ramon Writes) is given:

Your hair is very dry and dull; you should put some brilliantine on it every day. I have some which is very good and makes the hair glossy without greasing it.

The customer (hereinafter to be referred to as Ramon and that’s without an accent, please, Mr. Typesetter*), agrees to the transaction at the confusing price of six dollars a bottle, at which the hairdresser somewhat alarmingly comments:

I shall give you a little friction, shall I not ?

Fortunately for sensitive readers, Ramon, after considerable thought (and no doubt working it out that if a bottle of brilliantine sets him back six bucks then a friction job is likely to leave him in the poor house) rejoins “No, it is not necessary’. After all, to sell El Inglés Práctico in schools they would have wanted to keep the ‘G’ rating.

Our students certainly come a long way by the end of the book. I quote from the final unit of what I must ask you to remember is a first year book:

Thus, from the hands of this prodigal son of the Independence, surged this sublime blue and white ensign, which today flies proudly and arrogantly from the masts of ships, public buildings and Argentine forts.

Unfortunately I don’t have a copy of El Inglés Práctico – Segundo Libro, but I should be very interested to see it. The ‘Argentine forts’ seem to have disappeared too.

I am at present teaching a group in the Victoria School who are hoping to sit for the University of Cambridge Proficiency Examination at the end of this year, at a level corresponding to some eight or nine years of language study. With respect to my students, many of them would be pushed to come up with something quite so elegant as the above eulogy to Belgrano. Those teachers of long ago certainly must have known something we don’t know today.


* there were typesetters in those days – how times have changed.